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Who invented the question mark?

Q: It’s Lent Madness time again, which reminds me of a saint contest a few years ago that pitted two deacons against each other: Alcuin of York vs. Ephrem of Edessa. I voted for Alcuin because he was identified as the inventor of the question mark (among more spiritual accomplishments). Are you familiar with him?

A: Alcuin, Charlemagne’s éminence grise, was quite a guy—scholar, poet, teacher, and cleric—but he didn’t invent what we now know as the question mark. More to the point, we’ve seen no evidence that he created its medieval ancestor, the punctus interrogativus, which didn’t look or act much like the modern question mark.

The punctus interrogativus, a squiggle rising diagonally from left to right above a point, appeared in the late eighth century in Carolingian miniscule, the Latin script used when Charlemagne (747-814) ruled much of Europe. Alcuin (735-804) oversaw Charlemagne’s palace school and scriptorium at Aachen in Francia from 782 to 793.

The evidence we’ve found indicates that Godescalc, a poet, scribe, and illuminator, was the first person to use the punctus interrogativus at the scriptorium, or copying room, in Aachen. Godescalc used it in producing an illuminated manuscript commissioned by Charlemagne in 781, the year before Alcuin arrived in Aachen.

The usage appeared in the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary (781-83), the first known manuscript produced at the scriptorium at Aachen. The manuscript is named after Godescalc because he refers to himself as the author in a poem at the end.

We found several examples of the punctus interrogativus in the first dozen or so pages of the manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Ms. NAL 1203), suggesting that Godescalc began using them in 781—before Alcuin’s arrival. In this example from folio 6v, the punctus interrogativus can be seen on the third line.

Sedsic eum volo manere donec venia[m] quid ad te?

(But so I want him to stay until I come, what is it to you?
Gospel of John, 21:22.)

(We’ll have more to say later about Godescalc’s symbolic use of gold letters on purple parchment.)

We’ve seen reports of possible earlier sightings of the punctus interrogativus in manuscripts from the scriptorium at Corbie Abbey to the southwest of Aachen, but we haven’t found any Corbie examples produced before the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary.

As the paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes explains in Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (1993), the punctus interrogativus “seems to have spread rapidly from the court of Charlemagne to other centres,” reaching Corbie “at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century.”

The punctus interrogativus was originally used in liturgical writing to tell reciters and singers when to raise their voices inquiringly and pause at the end of a question, according to paleographers, specialists in ancient writing.

Parkes says the punctus interrogativus was one of several symbols developed in the second half of the eighth century to fill the “need for adequate punctuation in liturgical texts.” Such texts were designed to be spoken or sung. A lectionary, like Godescalc’s, is a collection of liturgical readings.

The new system of symbols, called positurae, used a punctus versus to signal a pause at the end of a sententia, a punctus elevatus to signal an interior pause in a sententia, and a punctus interrogativus to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause at the end of an interrogatio.

(The punctus versus looked somewhat like a modern semicolon, while the punctus elevatus looked a bit like an upside-down semicolon.)

“In western manuscripts the positurae fulfilled the need for more accurate indication of the nature of the pauses required to elucidate the sense of the text when it was intoned or sung in the liturgy,” Parkes says in Pause and Effect.

The paleographer Albert Derolez has noted that the punctus interrogativus originated “in a neume or sign of musical notation, which indicated that the voice had to rise at the end of the sentence” (The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books, 2003).

And the musical historian Leo Treitler points out in With Voice and Pen (2007) that the upward stroke of the punctus interrogativus corresponds “to the inflection of the voice in questions.”

Although Alcuin wrote about the need for proper punctuation in copying ancient manuscripts, we haven’t found any writing of his that either mentions or uses the punctus interrogativus. He doesn’t use it, for example, in the interrogative passages we’ve read from Quaestiones in Genesim, a series of questions and answers about Genesis.

Alcuin favored a two-fold system of punctuation with distinctiones to mark pauses at the end of sententiis and subdistinctiones to mark interior pauses. In a letter written to Charlemagne in 799, Alcuin complained that scribes hadn’t been using them:

“punctorum vero distinctiones vel subdistinctiones licet ornatum faciant pulcherrimum in sententiis, tamen usus illorum propter rusticitatem paene recessit a scriptoribus” (“points for distinctions and subdistinctions make the most beautiful sentences, but their use has almost disappeared because of the rusticity of scribes”).

In fact, those “rustic” scribes began adding punctuation marks on their own initiative to Alcuin’s two-part system. Godescalc, as we’ve said, was apparently the first person at the Aachen scriptorium to use the punctus interrogativus.

In a poem at the end of the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, he says Charlemagne commissioned the manuscript in the fall of 781.

Septenis cum aperit felix bis fascibus annum
Hoc opus eximium franchorum scribere Carlus
Rex plus egregia hildgarda cum conjuge iussit.

(As he happily opened the 14th year of his reign [Oct. 9, 781], King Charles of the Franks, with his wife Hildegard, commissioned the writing of this exceptional work.)

And in this excerpt from the poem, Godescalc mentions himself as the creator of the illuminated manuscript and suggests that he began working on it six months before Charlemagne commissioned it. Godescalc’s name appears at the end of the second line.

Ultimus hoc famulus studuit complere godescalc
Tempore vernali transcensis alpibus ipse.
Urbem romuleam voluit quo visere consul.

(The humblest servant Godescalc was diligently at work on this opus in the springtime, when the Consul himself [Charlemagne], having crossed the Alps, wished to visit the city of Romulus. [Charlemagne visited Rome in April 781.])

In 2011, a Cambridge manuscript specialist, James F. Coakley, reported finding ancient marks of interrogation in fifth-century biblical manuscripts written in Syriac, a Middle Eastern language. But paleographers believe that the punctus interrogativus, not the Syriac symbol, is the ancestor of our question mark.

The modern question mark, a grammatical device indicating the end of an interrogative sentence, evolved over hundreds of years from the Carolingian punctuation mark, which originated, as we’ve said, as a rhetorical device in liturgical writing to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause.

The earliest example we’ve seen for a punctuation mark that looks and acts like the modern question mark is from a book printed in Latin in the late 15th century by Aldus Manutius, an Italian scholar, educator, and publisher.

This image is from Pietro Bembo’s De Ætna, a Latin account of his ascent of Mount Etna with his father, Bernardo. The work, written as a dialogue between Bembus Pater (B. P.) and Bembus Filius (B. F.), was published around 1495 by Manutius’s Aldine Press. The question mark ends the last sentence.

[B. F.] Ego uero existimabam pater errauisse me sic etiam nimis diu. B. P. Non est ita: sed, ne nunc tandem erremus; perge de ignibus, ut proposuisti: uerum autem, quid tu haeres?

([B. F.] I thought my father was wrong for too long. B. P. It is not so: but let us not stray from the point; go on [continue telling me] about fire, as you intended, but what is keeping you?)

Getting back to  Godescalc, we’ll end with the opening lines of his poem, which describe the symbolism of the colors he uses in producing the manuscript.

Aurea purpureis pinguntur grammata scedis
Regna poli roseo pate sanguine facta tonantis.
Fulgida stelligeri promunt et gaudia caeli
Eloquiumque dei digno fulgore choruscans.
Splendida perpetuae promittit praemia vitae.

(Gold letters painted on purple pages reveal in rose-red blood the celestial kingdom and the joys of heaven. And the eloquence of God, shining brightly, promises the splendid reward of eternal life.)

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